A link to some pearls of wisdom from Pixar has been doing the rounds on Twitter recently and we ignore these pearls at our peril. And yet, the ambitious young comedy writer might turn their snout up at these pearls. And I can understand why. After all, there’s nothing about comedy on that list – and it’s all about character, focus, story, feelings, yadda yadda yadda. So far, so Woody.
The frustration is the novice comedy writer often feels they want to get on with the jokes. Cut to the funny. It’s partly borne out of passion for comedy, which is admirable. It can also come from lack of confidence. Young writers, especially blokes, often shy away from character and story because they are more attracted to ideas and jokes. And so their characters can merely be vehicles for concepts and/or mouthpieces for clever wordplay. I remember this stage in my own career as a writer – and a very happy stage it was as I was writing sketches for stage (Infinite Number of Monkeys), radio (Concrete Cow) and TV (Smack the Pony). We've seen and loved sketch shows that revel in ideas and jokes, rather than characters. (eg. Big Train, Mr Show)
A Blend of Skills
The art of writing sitcoms requires all of the above skills – you need ideas and jokes - but also a bunch of other skills. It’s why it’s so hard. You need to be able to establish characters, tell a story that suits those characters and make it funny. All within 20-28 minutes. Ideally, it needs to be funny because it’s those characters in that story. The best jokes are often very small ones, but they mean so much because of the character and the situation.
Sketches are like pop songs. Three minute nuggets of catchy, carefully honed perfection. What’s not to like? The sitcom is the half-hour symphony with high and lows, repeating themes and a crescendo. It requires careful planning, hard work and, above all, confidence, to pull it off.
Scripts that lack confidence are easy to spot. They’re full of jokes, sometimes good ones, occasionally highly original ones, but you don’t really care. There’s not enough to keep you turning the pages. It’s what-I-call “people talking”. People with names trading lines, wise-cracks and insults.
Why People Watched Friends
The problem is that highly successful shows can look like they’re just people talking. Let’s take Friends. It was such an exciting show when it came out. But it remained exciting through its long run. How?
And at the start, everyone liked it straight off because of the jokes. Everyone’s favourite character was Chandler, because Chandler just was funny. He said funny things. The kind of things that comedy writers would say. That was his thing. Being funny. Nice trick. Phoebe too. She was crazy and said funny things. And Joey. He liked the ladies and was dumb as nuts. But the show wasn’t a huge multi-billion dollar long-running smash hit because of Chandler, Phoebe and Joey. It was because of Ross and Rachel. Their carefully paced and calibrated story kept people coming back for more and more.
Writing sitcoms is more than just joining up jokes. Yes, Graham Linehan is open about how he writes sitcom scripts, seeing funny set-piece scenes in his mind’s eye and working how to get from one to the next. But don’t do it his way even though he makes it work. Carla Lane, I’m told, didn’t used to plan her episodes of, say, Bread, in advance. Don’t do it her way either. She made it work. (In front of nearly 20 million people, let's not forget) It is unlikely any of us have the exact same skill set as Mr Linehan or Ms Lane. We need to do it like Pixar.
All of this is a long way of saying that sitcoms need characters and stories. You need to get those in place or your jokes just won’t count. A young comedy writer might think he can gag his way out of trouble. A more experienced hand my think the same. After all, who cares about the plot if it’s really funny. But thinking of better jokes won’t help any more than spending a week buffing up a Ford Cortina. At the end of the day, it’s just a Ford Cortina.
So, if you’ve got a good idea for a sitcom, or an episode, go through that Pixar list and ask yourself those difficult questions. Or get some help. Ask someone else who's strong on story and character to help you. In the long-run, it’ll make writing your show much easier.
And then when you're got your brilliant characters and carefully crafted plot, promise me one thing. That you'll write some jokes? Thank you.